Arizona’s laws on what most people think of as “grand theft auto” takes the catchiness out of the popular video game’s namesake. Instead, Arizona refers to “Theft or Unlawful Use of Means of Transportation.” These laws apply to the unauthorized use or theft of any vehicle.
Arizona law breaks down this type of theft of a vehicle into two categories. The two categories are distinguished by the driver’s intentions. In other words, did the driver intend to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, or just temporarily?
Unauthorized Use of Means of Transport (A.R.S. § 13-1803)
Unauthorized use of means of transportation applies when a person uses or controls a vehicle without authorization but does not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. There are two ways to commit unauthorized use of means of transportation.
The first occurs when a person knowingly takes unauthorized control of another person’s vehicle. The law defines control as acting “to exclude others from using their property except on the defendant’s own terms.” So a joy ride or a family member borrowing a car without permission can fall into this category. Using someone else’s vehicle without permission is a class 5 felony, punishable by .5 – 2.5 years in prison.
The second way of committing unauthorized use of means of transport occurs when a person is knowingly transported or physically in a vehicle the person knows (or has reason to know) is stolen. That means that simply being a passenger in a car that you have reason to know was stolen can be a felony. This category is classified as a class 6 felony, punishable by .33 – 2 years in prison.
Theft of Means of Transportation (A.R.S. § 13-1814)
This is the law people generally think of when they think of auto theft. There are multiple ways to commit theft of a vehicle. All of them are classified as a class 3 felony, punishable by 2 – 8.75 years in prison.
The first way to commit auto theft is to control another person’s vehicle with the intent to permanently deprive that person of their vehicle. Again, the law defines control as acting “to exclude others from using their property except on the defendant’s own terms.”
The second way to commit auto theft applies when a vehicle is entrusted to a person for a period of time. Auto theft occurs if that person then controls the vehicle for a period longer than the permitted timeframe.
A third way to commit auto theft occurs when a person obtains a vehicle through misrepresentation or fraud, with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle.
Auto theft can also occur when a vehicle is lost or mis-delivered. If the circumstances provide “means of inquiry” as to the true owner, and a person takes or controls a lost or mis-delivered vehicle as their own without reasonable efforts to notify the owner, they can be charged with auto theft.
Finally, auto theft occurs when a person controls another person’s vehicle when they knew (or had reason to know) that the vehicle was stolen. Contrary to what you’d expect, the law actually contains a presumption that a person had reason to know property was stolen in this case! The presumption applies if the state can prove that the person 1) possessed the stolen property, 2) purchased it substantially below fair market value, or 3) purchased it from a dealer outside the normal course of business. A satisfactory explanation can overcome the presumption.
Arizona criminal law also favors rental car companies and lien holders. If a person fails to make a car payment for more than 90 days, for example, the lien holder, if they carefully comply with the language of A.R.S. § 13-1813(2)(a), can ask the State of Arizona to pursue a class 6 felony charge against the lessee (i.e., the person who leased the vehicle or bought it subject to a lien). For rental vehicles, the penalties for failing to return a rental car are even worse. Under Arizona criminal law, if a person rents a vehicle, and fails to return it within 72 hours after the time provided for in the rental agreement, that person can be convicted of a class 5 felony and sentenced up to 2.5 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections, pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-1806.
Theft or use of means of transportation charges are commonly accompanied by other charges too. It is important for your lawyer to investigate the evidence carefully to unearth and utilize all available legal defenses. (The relevant statutes contain several defenses.) Unlike in the video game, the stakes are real. At Griffen & Stevens, PLLC, we are proud to defend clients accused of all types of theft, auto theft, unlawful use, and fraud. Feel free to contact us for a free criminal defense consultation.
Article written by Ian van Schilfgaarde, Esq.
Featured image of “Grand Theft Auto” screen used pursuant to license issued by iStock by Getty Images. This article is for educational purposes only, and is not for commercial use. This article does not create an attorney-client relationship nor does it contain any legal advice.